With China, both provocation and diplomacy need greater forethought

With China, both provocation and diplomacy need greater forethought

Given that the Dalai Lama was scheduled to visit the US for medical treatment on June 20, the US delegation’s visit was staged to push New Delhi to commit to a more aggressive posture towards Beijing.

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Last Updated : 22 June 2024, 05:51 IST

Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signalled a continuation in foreign policy in his third term by not changing his external affairs minister, the world is perhaps treating him differently. This is most evident in India granting permission to a US Congressional delegation’s visit to the Dalai Lama recently.

India’s facilitation of the delegation is being projected as sending a signal to Beijing before the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital on July 3-4. China’s President Xi Jinping and Modi are likely to meet there.

The meeting will take place four years after the loss of an estimated 2,000 sq km of India’s land to China along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. India has claimed that five of the seven contentious border issues in Ladakh — Depsang, Galwan, Gogra, Kakjung, the north bank of Pangong lake, Kailash Range, and Demchok — have been resolved. Only Depsang and Demchok still need to be addressed.

However, experts have pointed out that this ‘resolution’ is nothing more than ‘disengagement’ — the two sides agreeing to be separated by a few kilometres to avoid eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. There is no actual de-induction of additional forces sent to Ladakh by either side, over the last four years. As for Depsang and Demchok, China has refused to even discuss disengagement from the transgressed points in the 21 rounds of border talks between Beijing and New Delhi. Further, China has refused to restore the status quo as it existed in April 2020 in all the disputed border points.

Under these circumstances, what can a weakened Modi in his third term achieve by annoying China on the Tibet issue?

It is quite likely, therefore, that the visit reflects arm-twisting by the US to push India towards a more proactive stance on Tibet. The bipartisan US Congressional delegation was led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul and included known China-baiter, former House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

Also, surprisingly since the Dalai Lama was scheduled to visit the US for medical treatment on June 20, McCaul, Pelosi, et. al. could as easily have met him there and assured him of US efforts to pressure China towards an ‘unconditional dialogue’ with him. The logistics suggest, therefore, that visiting him in India was staged to push New Delhi to commit to a more aggressive posture towards Beijing.

It is important to ask why India permitted this politically charged byplay. India is being drawn into playing a provocative game without any significant means of controlling its outcome. It is one thing for the Prime Minister of India to have a warm exchange of messages on X (earlier, Twitter) with the President of Taiwan in the euphoria of an election victory, but quite another to signal a more forward foreign policy vis-à-vis China.

‘Every provocation in international affairs must have a clearly defined diplomatic objective. For example, when China renamed 30 places in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in April 2024, it was asserting its claim over the territory which it calls South Tibet or Zangnan. However, there seems to be no clear goal in publicly displaying warmth towards Taiwan or allowing the seven-member US Congressional delegation to meet the Dalai Lama in India.’

India, in fact, does not support Taiwan’s independence from China. Following the ‘One China policy’, it has refrained from establishing full diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Taipei and New Delhi only maintain commercial, cultural, and educational ties through cultural centres and associations.

In Tibet too, India officially has recognised the Tibet Autonomous Region as a part of China since 1954. Although the Sino-Indian Agreement, or the Panchsheel Agreement, lapsed on June 6, 1962, in the midst of the India-China War, India’s position on Tibet has remained unchanged. India reiterated its recognition of Tibet as a part of China in the joint declaration signed by India’s then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his counterpart Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in 2003.

India’s position on Tibet has often been compared to China’s position on Kashmir. Each has a nuanced position without India questioning the sovereignty of China over Tibet and yet sheltering the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees, and China supporting Pakistan without explicitly questioning India’s sovereignty over Kashmir.

If these policy positions still hold, then allowing US Congressmen to meet the Dalai Lama and express support in India for ‘the rights of the Tibetan people under international law, including their right to self-determination’, seems inexplicable. Moreover, by holding official meetings with the visiting US Congressional delegation the Modi government signalled support, though the discussion, it is reported, focussed on bilateral strategic partnership.

Although the US also acknowledges Tibet as part of China, the Resolve Tibet Act passed by the two Houses of Congress (not signed by President Joe Biden as yet), advocates the right of Tibetans over their future — not ruling out independence. For India, however, advocacy of self-determination in Tibet is a departure from the past. India has not supported Tibetan independence earlier, nor allowed international leaders to meet the Dalai Lama in India or address the media.

The other issue of concern for the international community is the succession of the Dalai Lama through reincarnation. The Dalai Lama, the 14th spiritual and political leader of the Tibetans, is not in the best of health, and will turn 89 on July 6. The Americans are worried about whether the reincarnation will take place in China and fear the political consequences of an atheist China choosing the next Dalai Lama. India, which borders Tibet and houses more than 72,000 Tibetan refugees will also have to deal with the fallout of the event.

Experts believe that India should limit itself to facilitating the Dalai Lama and his senior advisers to choose his successor/reincarnation without getting too deeply involved in the process.

(Bharat Bhushan is a Delhi-based journalist.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.


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